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Kent Bernhardt column: Nothing is more Southern than grits — except for sweet tea

I was trying to think a few moments ago of any food item that is decidedly more Southern than grits.

I couldn’t come up with another food, but a beverage popped into my mind almost immediately. 

Sweet tea.

Only in the South is sweet tea revered and cherished on the same level as grandchildren. 

When I visit my daughter in Utah, I know better than to even mention it by name. I did that only once and received a blank stare, followed by a promise to “bring some sugar to my table.”

“No, that won’t be necessary, I’ll be fine,” I lied. Adding sugar to tea after it’s been served is generally useless, and it violates what I think was meant to be the 11th commandment.

Life has taught me that even Southerners view sweet tea differently. 

Some go directly for the “waistline be damned” approach and serve tea that is so sweet, honey seems bland after consuming it.  I like to call that “cough syrup tea.” 

It has the volume and consistency of cream, and after the first sip I feel the need to loosen my belt a notch.  While I am fan of sweet tea, I am not a fan of cough syrup tea.

I like my tea lighter, somewhat less sweet, and more refreshing.  And I like it in a frosted glass with plenty of ice.  Lemon is optional.

Iced tea was a staple in my family home when I was growing up, served at both lunch and dinner.  Excuse me, that’s dinner and supper for those of us in the South.

I was in my late teens before I was allowed to substitute tea for my glass of milk at lunch, and that was a banner day for me. I guess my parents figured my bones were strong enough.

Years passed before I learned my family’s tea recipe included both sugar and saccharin. We still called it sweet tea, but I was afraid if that fact became known, we might be asked to leave North Carolina.

Saccharin was once reported to cause cancer in laboratory rats, but later the folks who study these things discovered that since, in most cases, humans aren’t very much like rats, that fear was overblown.

I never told my family this, but when I finally left home I ditched the saccharin and set out to discover my own tea recipe. I brewed it differently, sweetened it to my own taste and consistency, and finally after years of tweaking, I stopped making tea altogether. 

I have only recently returned to making my own tea, and my last batch was some of the best I’ve had.

I should note that I have friends who despise tea and never drink it. Other than this one character flaw, they are fine upstanding members of their respective communities, and I see no need to reveal their identities have them removed from the South.

Now, if we discover they despise tea AND grits, that’s a different matter.

Kent Bernhardt is a longtime local broadcaster who lives in Salisbury.

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